Elisabeth Thurlow is Digital Archives & Collections Implementation Manager at the University of the Arts London

Across the six colleges which make up the University of the Arts London (UAL)1 we hold over 120 archives and special collections, many of which contain an increasing amount of digital content – both digitised and born digital materials. These collections chart past and contemporary creative arts practice; the development of art and design education; and the emerging digital arts landscape.

Like others we have been thinking and talking about digital preservation for a number of years. But since January 2018 we have been actively implementing a dedicated digital preservation system, in a collaborative project between our IT Services and collections management staff. A working group of archivists, museum curators, special collections librarians and IT specialists, who together have a shared interest in digital preservation and access.

One year into implementation and we can see the landscape in which we operate is changing and we will not be immune from its impacts. We have seen exciting developments as our students and colleagues embrace the use of emerging technologies, which is already impacting on our digital collecting. We are part of a growing network of UAL colleagues who are engaged in digital capture, digital curation and digital research, including the curation and preservation of virtual reality artworks.

This week a number of our collections staff were invited to get hands on with a new accessible photogrammetry and 360-degree photography system being developed for the arts, culture and heritage sectors.Engaging in workshops like this as users of these prototype tools will help us understand the challenges we will face in providing access to the digital resources being created and in ensuring that they can be preserved for future generations.

But as well as these more glamorous (though often mind-boggling!) moments, our digital journey so far has also involved going right back to the basics and thinking about the metadata we create and capture.

Digital housekeeping

To support automation, we have started integrating our new digital preservation system with our existing collection catalogues. This has been a revealing process, not only increasing our understanding of our systems and their limitations, but also allowing us to analyse the metadata we currently hold, both within these systems and elsewhere.  

In recent months we have been preparing selected digital collections for upload, which has included an amount of ‘digital housekeeping’. As part of scoping we have been assessing UAL’s digital collections and their associated metadata, to identify whether they meet our minimum requirements for ingest.

Metadata underpins the management and use of collections of all kinds. It is needed for discovery and interpretation, providing provenance, context, and structure.

The issues we have encountered will be familiar to others. These may be a lack of consistency, varying structures, or the presence of human errors. As the DPC Handbook states, ‘ metadata is much cheaper and simpler to produce at the time of creation or very soon after…the more time that passes, the more difficult, time-consuming, and expensive it becomes to reconstruct the required information to create useful metadata’. Going back and reviewing this metadata, and undertaking any needed remedial work, is a time-consuming task. We have therefore focused on identifying the minimum yet sufficient level of information required to enable the management and use of these digital materials once ingested into our digital preservation system. In agreeing this approach we needed to consider what would be realistic to achieve – identifying what information is needed now and what we could improve at a later date if time and resources allow.

Undertaking a basic level of housekeeping on our data will ultimately improve the information we hold, aiding our understanding of our collections today and the discovery of these materials in the future. In support of the integration of our disparate systems, it will also allow us to benefit from the potential of automating some of our processes. 

Using our digital legacy to support future best practice

Like elsewhere our digital legacy includes the outputs of numerous digitisation projects. These have been carried out over a number of years, by a number of staff, and include both internal and external digitisation. This has led to a huge variation in the quality of metadata. We are able to learn from this and we are working together as a community of collections managers to ensure that any future digital projects in which the University takes part will incorporate best practice around key issues, such as file naming and chosen file formats, to support both access and preservation. 

This is an ongoing learning curve. Through metadata capture we can see how our practices have changed and will continue to improve thanks to a growing awareness of these issues and awareness of the importance of metadata for systems interoperability and long term digital preservation.

[1] Camberwell College of Arts; Central Saint Martins; Chelsea College of Arts; London College of Communication; London College of Fashion; and Wimbledon College of Arts

[2] APachs: Accessible Photogrammetry for the Arts, Culture and Heritage Sectors is a 3 month collaboration between Cyreal and Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, working with innovation agency Golant Media Ventures and funded by Innovate UK, part of UK Research and Innovation. 

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